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Joe and Me: Two Generations on the Left

Kenneth Kann
September 27, 2014
by Kenneth Kann Joe and Ken WE SAT ARGUING AT JOE’S KITCHEN TABLE, with my tape recorder ready for an interview session. Joe had called our publisher to demand that they replace me with another writer for his autobiography. I flung pencils at the wall in exasperation. We were fighting about an attack on Ukrainian peasants. By Jews. Sixty years earlier. I was a young historian who delighted in the stories of my 77-year-old subject. This surprising tale had to be in our book. But Joe resisted. Yossel, Joe, was born in 1899 in a Ukrainian shtetl, Stanislavchik. During the Russian Revolution, he was a hot-blooded teenager. Defying parents, he and his pals defended their shtetl with guns in those years of marauding armies, pogroms, and feuds with young Ukrainians. In one of our interviews Joe recounted how, at 19, he had joined a Jewish detachment of the Red Army on a mission to fight a bandit group threatening a nearby shtetl. They routed the bandits, who were local Ukrainian peasants. These Jewish Bolsheviks then assaulted the nearby Ukrainian village — robberies, beatings, more. I wanted the astonishing details, but when I began questioning what happened, Joe refused to tell. Tears happyA Jewish pogrom on Ukrainian peasants! Here was an extraordinary event that revealed Joe and his times. I included it in our chapter on World War I and the Russian Revolution. “Take it out,” Joe told me, when he read the first draft. “It will be bad for the Jewish people.” “But it happened,” I argued. “Jews also can do terrible things in war and revolution.” “I will not be part of a blood bilbul.“ This was a fierce objection. A “blood bilbul“ is a monstrous anti-Semitic libel, like the medieval claim, revived by the Nazis, that Jews fed on the blood of gentiles at Passover. Joe proclaimed he would not provide fuel for enemies of the Jewish people. We debated it again and again over years, as he discovered that I kept the story in chapter 2 through successive drafts. Joe’s complaint to the publisher came as the oral history autobiography approached publication in 1981. In the end we compromised. The Jewish attack remained in the chapter, without elaboration, as a rumor Joe heard returning home: “We gave the bastards a taste of their own.” Now, over 30 years after publication, I’ve stopped wondering what actually happened in that Ukrainian village, and whether we had to include it in our book. My inspiring encounters with Joe are far away in my own remote history. THE BOOK WAS TITLED JOE RAPOPORT, THE LIFE OF A JEWISH RADICAL. It told Joe’s momentous story: growing up in Stanislavchik, a perilous 1919 emigration journey, his New York City experience in the 1920s through the 1940s as a shop worker and leftwing labor organizer, and then his years in northern California as a chicken rancher and community activist. Joe explained his 1923 conversion to socialism as having “a double edge — the participation in the class struggle against exploitation of man by man, and the strong feeling for solving the Jewish problem by humanizing society.” Through Joe’s autobiography, I wanted to tell the epic history of America’s 20th-century East European immigrant Jewish left. We met in 1974 at an American Civil Liberties Union picnic in Sonoma County, 35 miles north of San Francisco. I was working on an oral history of the once famous Petaluma Jewish chicken ranching community. I was taping immigrants, their children and grandchildren, chronicling the Americanization of an immigrant community over generations. Age 30, I wanted to understand those grandchildren, the community’s lost generation, my own baby-boom generation: where we came from and where we were heading. Joe opened another door into that history, from the left. Joe had walked in the pages of the American history I was studying as a graduate student. He arrived in California in 1949 after having been blackballed from work in New York City during the McCarthy era. He had been a skilled knit-goods worker and a Communist Party union organizer, a grassroots leader in the great industrial union organizing drives of the 1930s. Joe began anew in postwar Sonoma County, where he built a prosperous hen ranch. Still a socialist radical, he became a county activist, involved in every local social-justice campaign, inside and outside the Jewish community, whether fighting McCarthyism, advocating for small farmers, working for racial integration, opposing the Vietnam War, or supporting a local Native American cultural center. I was dazzled by how Joe and his generation placed their lives in the great currents of 20th-century world history. Joe’s recollections of his tiny shtetl became a broad narrative of Jewish life under the Tsar, in revolution, and then under the Soviet system. Joe’s tale of romance with Shaiva, Sheba, his wife of over half a century, born in a neighboring shtetl, was a charming exposition on Old World continuities in his 1920s Brownsville Yiddish ghetto. His account of being a hand-knitter morphed into the saga of immigrant class conflict and the movements to build trade unions and socialism. Explaining the small Petaluma Jewish chicken ranching community, Joe portrayed postwar American national politics and social upheavals. Joe’s preoccupation with the Jewish people and the “insult” of anti-Semitism, his visits back to his shtetl in the Soviet Union, his journeys to Israel, mushroomed into the epic of 20th-century Jewish destiny as Soviet citizens, European victims, Zionist pioneers in Palestine, and American socialist immigrants. Joe knew that he was an actor on the world stage. That he and his East European Jewish generation had rejected shtetl passivity, participated in great national and international events, and made history. He was not surprised by my interest and interviews, then our oral history project, and then our publication contract. Joe was ready for his historian. Me. WHEN I MET JOE, I was a doctoral student, studying the past and searching for my future. I grew up in the old Jewish West Side of Chicago and the Jewish suburb Skokie. At the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s I had joined the student rebellion, casually discarding my plan for law school. In 1966 I headed straight to UC Berkeley for graduate study at the wellspring of the uprising. While studying history in the 1960s, I thought I was making history through the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the student movement. I met Joe amidst the collapse of this upheaval. By the 1970s my generation was in political retreat to private life and “lifestyle,” with emerging new preoccupations: careers, earnings, and consumption. But I was among many baby-boomer rebels who searched for alternative radical vocations and projects: local newspapers, legal collectives, medical clinics, food coops, free schools, and street theater, to name a few. My aspiration was to become a freelance radical historian. In 1974, I began visiting Petaluma to interview immigrant Jewish chicken ranchers about their community. I turned to my grandparents’ generation, the Yiddish immigrant world described in Irving Howe’s masterpiece World of Our Fathers. I was searching for something with more political staying power than I had found in my 1950s suburb or 1960s Berkeley or the 1970s national retrenchment. The consistency of Joe Rapoport’s recognition of injustice, faith in socialism, and participation in social movements stood in dramatic contrast to the ephemeral character of my generation’s 1960s upheavals. In Joe and his radical Jewish movement I saw continuity of politics, culture, and comrades over half a century. I needed to understand these long-distance runners on the American left. So in 1977, Ph.D. degree in hand and an academic job in reach, I took a giant detour. I turned to writing Joe’s autobiography and a popular history of the Petaluma Jewish chicken ranching community. I still recall the look of puzzlement on the face of my mentor professor when I told him I would not apply for teaching positions. I did not realize it at the time, but I actually had bet my career as a historian on telling the stories of Joe and the chicken ranchers. I was fascinated by Joe as a genuine rebel, by temperament as well as politics. Take his bar mitsve. As a boy, as part of his rebellion against religious orthodoxy, Joe did not learn his Torah reading. On his bar mitsve day, Joe’s father told him, “You put me to shame before the entire shtetl. I do not believe you will say kaddish when I die.” I found this incident more troubling than the Jewish pogrom against the Ukrainians. I was a dutiful son as well as a 1960s rebel, and I puzzled over how Joe could include that description of his father’s public disappointment with him in the book, for everyone to read. I would have been mortified, and I wondered if Joe was embarrassed. But I knew the answer. This was Joe’s proud character: rejection of the his family’s orthodoxy; resistance to anti-Semites attacking Stanislavchik; lone teenage emigration from the Ukraine; refusal to work in his brother’s New York store; determination to become a hand knitter and a union activist; expulsion from English language school because of his classroom defense of jailed socialist leader Eugene Debs. Coming of age, Joe chose the paths of independence, resisting injustice, challenging authority, and sticking to principle. He had been truly revolutionary, eager to create a new world, like his Jewish immigrant generation. As an unencumbered Berkeley radical, a freelance historian without a job or California family, with my movement gone and future unclear, I gravitated to Joe’s seamless blend of tradition with rebellion. His decades-long devotion to political principle and organizational action was steady and solid. His 1920s Rank and File Group of knit-goods activists had persisted into the 1930s, experienced and ready when the great union organizing drives became possible. Through a lifetime of social conflicts and personal dislocations, Joe had a half-century marriage, a sturdy Petaluma bungalow purchased through his hard-earned success as a hen rancher, and local respect as a longstanding community activist. Across decades in movements for social change, Joe had maintained ties with family, friends, and comrades that dated back to Stanislavchik, New York knit goods shops, and Sonoma County chicken ranches. He could summon the Prophets, Ukrainian folklore, and Yiddish literature, along with the teachings of Marx and Lenin, to discuss American life. I adopted Joe, with his large long fervent commitments, solidity, patience, determination, stubbornness, and integrity, as a grandfather away from home. Over years of interviews, my tape recorder and I became fixtures in Joe’s home. I camped at his cramped table for years, hundreds of hours, absorbed in our spacious friendship: questioning, listening, arguing, discussing our manuscript, enjoying corned beef and cabbage meals prepared by Sheba, meeting their friends, and downing shots of vodka to celebrate our project. MY FAVORITE PHOTOS were of Joe and Sheba on a 1927-1928 cross-country trip to explore America. Joe had been my age, and my 1960s political and counter-cultural explorations did not measure up to this. Sheba had been a stunning young beauty, and married Joe to avoid problems crossing the American heartland. Their magnificent Chevrolet touring car was solid on the gravel roads, with a top that came down and a front seat that lowered into a bed, the starting point for conversations with locals as they explored their new country. Joe found knitting work in Los Angeles, where they joined young Jewish radicals who sang folksongs as they hiked. He was a crucial new vote in the local Communist Party factional contest between Fosterites and Lovestonites. He dove into the labor battles with needle trades shops and the campaign to defend Tom Mooney. They explored the mountains and deserts, and savored Los Angeles’ miles of orange blossoms. They tried vegetarianism. Joe and Sheba, in the way of their radical immigrant Jewish generation, emerged in those pictures as young adventurers, at least until they returned to New York and the challenges of the Great Depression. Across years of interviews, I was repeatedly startled by Joe’s fresh indignation over terrible wrongs. There was that Nazi propaganda that Jews feasted on the blood of Christian babies; the American government’s execution of the Rosenbergs for atomic spying; the Soviet claim of a Jewish doctors’ plot on the life of Stalin; Irving Howe’s charge of Jewish communist gangsterism against Jewish socialists in the 1920s battles for control of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Would my own outrage over the injustices I fought have such longevity? I listened as Joe denounced Hannah Arendt’s castigation of European Jewish leaders for Holocaust complicity in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Joe did not name it a blood bilbul, but he saw it as “ammunition for the enemies of the Jewish people” and “with all my heart I condemn those opinions.” He explained the centuries-long persecution faced by European Jews, the historic Jewish defensive strategies of passivity and cooperation, the overwhelming power and the cunning of the Nazis’ extermination campaign. This was the loss of his Ukrainian family and friends. About those who criticized the Jewish people for walking into the gas chambers, Joe insisted, “You never know what you will do until you actually feel the knife at your throat.” Joe, I thought with admiration, had discovered his own answers to that question. I had nothing to say. His ferocity had included violence. As a teenager, he had fought in gun skirmishes to protect his shtetl, defending “the life and honor of the Jewish people,” and I believed he had killed enemy combatants. As part of the leftwing’s “apparatus of young workers who could handle themselves,” Joe had fought as a young militant in the 1920s, “to defend our movement from the labor terror of the social democratic leadership of the ILGWU.” Viewing the postwar ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, he explained, “It gave me a feeling of protest against the destruction of my people and a pride in our heroic resistance.” He admired the military prowess of the young Israelis he met in the 1960s and 1970s, with a gun in hand and “no timid expression in their faces.” “When he has a gun and when he joins together with others,” Joe insisted, with palpable pride, “the Jewish soldier ranks among the best fighters in the world.” These were the views of a man who had burst out of the humiliations of Jewish shtetl life. This was part of making history for Joe and his generation. I was a grandchild of this immigrant experience, far removed from violent persecution or resistance, and with a pacific inclination in opposition to the Vietnam War. Armed fighting? Unimaginable. Late at night, transcribing our interviews, thinking about Joe’s fierceness, I’d ponder, “Is this my historical tradition?” I URGED JOE TO RETHINK his beliefs in the light of many unexpected historical developments. He still was mulling over the 1920s and 1930s twists and turns of the Soviet Union, the Comintern, the Profintern, and American communist organizations in everything from world diplomacy to American union organizing. He still agonized over having been a permanent left opposition in the 1930s and 1940s within his local of the ILGWU, ever critical of the union, always Red-baited as a Communist following orders from Moscow, with dwindling influence: “Today I question those oppositional tactics...” Through our discussions, Joe reconsidered his decades-long belief that Soviet communism would end Tsarist constrictions on East European Jewish life and solve “the Jewish question,” as he recounted his gradual troubled recognition of Soviet anti-Semitism and the terrors faced by his own Ukrainian family and friends. He reexamined the Communist Party’s long opposition to Zionism; he embraced the creation and legitimacy of Israel, celebrated the self-assurance of Israeli-born youth, insisted upon his right to criticize Israeli policy toward Palestinians, and argued against young Jewish radicals who supported justice for Palestinians at the expense of their own people. Joe’s rethinking was deepest in response to the 1956 Twentieth Party Congress speech by Khrushchev, denouncing the tyranny of Stalin, when Joe vowed never again to follow a nation, leader, or organization over the dictates of his conscience. Joe refused to discuss his long membership in the Communist Party — a fascinatingly ordered world, far away from my undisciplined New Left. I thought he was justifiably cautious, having lived through years of government persecution of Party members, but I also suspected, after my stubbornness about the Jewish pogrom, that Joe did not trust me with an inside account of his leftwing movement. Or perhaps the Party record contained too many difficult ideological positions, organizing strategies, and personal choices that I wanted to explore and he did not. It was easy for me, a historian without a movement, to encourage Joe to reconsider his lifelong political commitments, for publication. I had not participated in those decades of struggles. My radicalism was born a few years previous in the freewheeling, disappeared Sixties. I was no activist organizer with longstanding comrades, organizations, and publications who would hold me accountable. My writing commitment was to tell a good story about the great deeds of the immigrant Jewish left. That included a deep look into their contradictions, misunderstandings, and failures. As I pressed Joe in our interviews, I bridled when I thought he was bending his experience to reflect well on the left and the Jews, and then we’d argue over how to tell his story. But I knew his rethinking was profound and balanced. I doubted that I could be so self-questioning when the time came for me to reckon up my lifelong values and actions. AFTER THE BOOK WAS PUBLISHED, I realized I had been blind to Joe’s experience as an immigrant, an outsider in American culture, a Jew forever in exile. Joe and Sheba surprised me in 1982 with their passionate admiration for a new film, ET, the Extra Terrestrial. This blockbuster science-fiction movie was about an alien creature marooned on earth, befriended by a lonely boy. I saw a sentimental extraterrestial buddy story. Joe and Sheba thought the movie was a breakthrough in American attitudes toward outsiders. I was astonished by their excitement about the movie’s message of acceptance. I always had viewed Joe and Sheba as comfortably integrated into American life, whether it was politics or work or neighbors. I had met their gentile friends. I had seen that Joe was respected in Sonoma County. Oddly, I had assumed that, like me, Joe had never experienced American ethnic difference, as if he too had grown up in a postwar Jewish American suburb. This discussion of ET, almost a decade after we’d met, provoked my first recognition that Joe had a deep feeling of apartness — alienness — as an immigrant. I remembered that he had alluded to it with his description of first visiting Israel in 1963: “I had a feeling of return to my own history.” Wrapped in my own cultural comfort, I had never thought to question Joe about his estrangement from America. With the approach of publication, Joe and I had to resolve a critical issue about his Jewishness, apropos of the book’s title. I wanted to name Joe as a “Jewish Radical.” Sheba thought it should be just “Radical.” She believed that organizers like Joe were internationalists who stood for working-class solidarity across national, ethnic, and religious differences; that Joe had fought for the liberation of all workers, not just Jews; and that he had opposed Jewish bosses, Jewish social democrats, and Jewish national separatists. I argued that Joe grew up in a shtetl, spoke Yiddish as his native tongue, resisted anti-Semitism, worked largely with Jewish immigrant workers in New York, was an activist among the Jewish chicken ranchers, associated himself with a Jewish immigrant radical movement, and had a lifelong preoccupation with the worldwide fate of the Jewish people. I thought Joe should be true to this experience. And, like our publisher, I wanted “Jewish” in the title because I thought it would attract more readers. This argument between Sheba and me, our own reprise of decades of European and American debates over class and ethnicity amongst Jewish socialists, nationalists, and communists, simmered for years, polite and intense. Sheba, I thought, was less flexible than Joe in her views of their lifelong radical commitments. But, reflecting on Joe’s New York organizing work with American, Italian, German, and Portuguese workers, with the Grange and the NAACP and the United Farm Workers in postwar Sonoma County, I also recognized that Sheba had a formidable position. To my relief, Joe ultimately agreed with me. The autobiography’s title named Joe as a “Jewish Radical.” THE 1981 PUBLICATION of Joe Rapoport, the Life of a Jewish Radical (Temple University Press) was a huge success for us. Jewish Currents had published an excerpt several years earlier: a high spirited, reflective account of Joe’s first strike. That preview article caught the attention of Joe’s New York City comrades. Several became volunteer editors of our manuscript; our project now included factual and interpretive debates with an insistent chorus of distant Yiddish voices. The book had become their story too, and Joe returned to New York to celebrate publication. I imagined small gatherings of aged radicals with quiet toasts and shared remembrances of great labor battles. Joe’s former trade union foes also figured large. “They were pushing us off the historical record,” Joe once complained about his social democratic rivals from the 1930s, tenacious former Lovestonite Communists who won control of the ILGWU knit goods workers local. With our book, Joe enjoyed the triumph of the final say. Here, in an authoritative university press volume, with Joe’s picture on the cover, in a coat and tie like any self-respecting hand-knitter, set against a background general strike flyer, was Joe’s account of 20th-century American unionism and the knit goods workers, including the contributions of his radical Rank and File Group. I was delighted to help Joe set straight the historical record of this obscure and revealing bygone struggle. I accomplished my own goals too. Publication of the book had vindicated my long preoccupation with the Petaluma chicken ranchers, which had taken me far from an academic career. Here was the experience of a unique Jewish immigrant radical with a colorful, instructive tale spanning continents and decades of social justice movements. Joe had an enduring belief in socialism and American democratic traditions, and offered deep insights from hard-earned lessons of his own accomplishments and failures. Through my interviews of Joe, I had written a compelling life story. The book offered a message to my own generation of radicals. Joe had presented a blistering critique of the New Left. He had worked closely with young radicals in the anti-war movement and electoral politics in Sonoma County. Joe welcomed the idealism of the young activists. But he criticized the new upheaval as a romanticized rebellion of the middle-class young against parents, the war, and a powerful system. He denounced New Left calls for separate political parties and revolutionary action, the extremism and violence, the reluctance to rely on American democratic traditions and to recognize that the 1960s were not a revolutionary period. He criticized the New Left’s lack of class theory and strategy to reach diverse people, and its ignorance of his brand of radical American history: working-class struggles over generations to build unions, establish workplace rights, achieve security for unemployment and disability and old age, and win an improved standard of living, including better homes, new cars, and color televisions. Without recognizing the long working-class movement for dignity through union organization, Joe insisted the New Left could not succeed. “You cannot reach the moon without an elevator,” he insisted. “You cannot build socialism without a broad movement.” Joe excoriated New Left historians who criticized the 1930s left for not advancing socialism. He insisted that those times had called for a popular front with non-socialists to address the Depression, build unions and social-welfare protections, and fight fascism; that these were the greatest accomplishments of the American labor movement. “There is a Yiddish expression for such people,” Joe said of his New Left historian critics, “frazn-shiser, phrase-shooter. They use revolutionary rhetoric that is not based on reality.” It was strong stuff, directed at my own generation, and I was excited to include it in the book. Joe and I had debated the Sixties left. I had defended our radical commitment, even as children of middle-class comfort, and our accomplishments in resisting the war, fostering racial justice, and challenging social conventions, often in the face of working-class opposition. I had questioned Joe’s allegiance to the local Democratic Party and whether he differed from liberal reformers. But in the end, I thought Joe’s criticism of the abortive Sixties upheaval was accurate, and his defense of the Thirties left was persuasive. And as a writer, I welcomed Joe’s generational provocations. I looked forward to New Left rejoinders. WE HAD A PUBLICATION PARTY IN BERKELEY, in my hometown. The house was filled with several generations of the left. And there was Joe, pensive in his steel-rimmed glasses, dapper in his sports coat and western string tie, a self-taught worker intellectual, a farmer intellectual, a shtetl boy who embraced the modern world, with this autobiography as a megaphone for his ideas. He delivered a speech on the movements he had been part of and the challenges ahead to build socialism. With Joe, it always was a critical examination of the past and an optimistic gaze to the future. I was beside him, my hair frizzy and sideburns long, big grin all afternoon, with a speech on the importance of Joe’s experience for my generation. I read a favorite passage from our book, a story from the 1936 knit-goods workers general strike: “The pickets came to my rescue, especially the girls. They dared more, expecting to be treated less rough than the men. One of my best friends on the organizational committee, a class-conscious working girl, Irene Mason, started to pull me away by the tie! She almost choked me to death! I told her later, ‘If I have such friends, who needs the gangsters?’ “We were arrested. The most militant — those who are in the forefront and give direction — were always arrested, and in the process we were not so gently handled. But from the picket line to the police station, we sang our militant songs. We had a spirit of courage, a feeling of victory, even though we had to go through the fight and arrest. We were out of jail the next morning and back on the picket line. And when the strike ended, the New York Knitting Mills settled with the union.” I was thrilled to read this language-on-paper that Joe and I had invented over years of debate. Joe spoke an eloquent, Yiddishized English. I had grown up hearing Yiddish, and I celebrated the disappearing language, so I attempted to reproduce Joe’s Yiddish English dialect in the book. Joe, who had embraced modern Yiddish culture as a young radical convert in the 1920s Pitkin Avenue Jewish Cultural Club, now considered Yiddish a cultural straightjacket that isolated his immigrant radical movement. He wanted me to write in a correct English that would be clear to readers and not subject to condescension. Over years of negotiating the language of drafts, our manuscript prose gravitated toward conventional English, shaped and flavored by Joe’s dialect. In the end Joe was satisfied, and I thought our prose perfectly expressed him for an American audience. Those words, the syntax and rhythms, became familiar music in my mind, a joy to chant aloud. From public appearances to private toasts, Joe and I celebrated our collaboration to tell the world his saga. I’m confident we gave away more copies of the book than the publisher sold. The autobiography was widely read, at least among our friends in northern California, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami, the circles we most cared about. It was well reviewed in California and Jewish and academic newspapers, magazines, and journals. It was not reviewed in any New Left publication. Joe and I did many speaking presentations together in the Bay Area. Hanging above my desk today is a bold red poster advertising one of those events, at Joe’s own nearby Sonoma State University: “Oral History as Autobiography. Joe Rapoport and Kenneth Kann. The Narrator and His Oral Historian.” I still look at it with pleasure. Yes, proudly, I was Joe’s historian. AFTER THE PUBLICATION of Joe Rapoport, I retooled. I could not find a publisher for my chicken-rancher book. My bridges with the academic world had disappeared through years-long devotion to chicken-rancher history, and the university teaching market had contracted. My career bet lost, I enrolled in law school and in 1986 became an attorney. I married and we had a daughter. I bought a San Francisco house and enrolled my daughter in private school. Through a massive effort, I remade myself from a Berkeley freelance New Left historian to a settled comfortable litigator — a late addition to the baby-boom generation exodus from Sixties radicalism. My transformation contrasted with two work displacements in Joe’s life. Mechanization and McCarthyism had ousted him from the hand-knitter trade after the war. And in the 1960s, the development of a national corporate poultry industry had forced him from family chicken ranching. Joe faced both challenges by organizing others to resist, but the world of the Jewish immigrant working class had largely disappeared. I had middle-class advantages — extensive education, family resources, two previous generations of assimilation and social mobility — that Joe never had enjoyed or sought. I used them for a solo departure from my historian career to a new profession. I never told Joe how my law career shifted, in 1990, to a firm that defended large corporations and government agencies. For the first time I was well paid, and I enjoyed working with the people who ran those institutions, but I felt uneasy about it. Joe had never compromised like this — employers often fired him or would not hire him because of his union activities. He had declined overtures to become a union bureaucrat, to dip into the ILGWU shmaltstop, lard bucket, and he had refused opportunities to become a knit-goods manufacturer. Joe had turned to raising chickens rather than give in to McCarthy-era blackballing, even though “It was not a marriage of love between the chicken and me.” How could I explain to Joe that I now represented the bosses? Joe died in 1992, a year before I finally published the story of the Petaluma Jewish chicken ranchers. With this new book, I had the pleasure of seeing his words on paper again, now among other narrators from his Petaluma chicken rancher community. It included Joe’s scorching critique of the insularity of his own Petaluma Yiddish radical group: “I was a stranger to our progressive Jewish movement by not declaring ‘Yidish iz loshn koydesh, Yiddish is a holy language,’ like it was said about Hebrew in the Old Country.” Joe had taken me to one of the last meetings of his Petaluma Jewish Cultural Club, to witness it at dissolution, the end of a political culture, Joe’s own. Joe knew I understood and would place it in my book. I wondered how Joe would have viewed that book. I thought he would have approved the sympathetic portrait of the linke, the community’s immigrant left, through their 20th-century achievements and tribulations. Joe would have agreed with my account of the next generation, the American children of the immigrants — their uneasy immigrant roots, hard-won prosperity and acceptance, and persisting ambivalence toward American life. And he would have been interested in the story of the third generation, my generation, with comfortable small-town childhoods, Sixties rebellion, challenges to parents, nostalgia for grandparents, lack of faith in religion or politics, and search for meaning in our own psyches. Much of my understanding of that community had come through years of discussions with Joe. But Joe was an idealist with faith in a socialist future. My Petaluma Jewish story presented community breakdown and deracination over generations, with uncertain prospects ahead. I continued to see Sheba after Joe died, and those visits were comforting. She began a project to reissue Joe Rapoport in her own edition, which would have a title without the word “Jewish,” along with other ideological corrections. Sheba was just the determined person to complete such a scheme, and I watched her with curiosity, apprehension, and grudging admiration. Despite my misgivings, I helped her. How could I refuse? But then Sheba passed away, and I lost my last living link to Joe. I regretted that Joe was not around when my daughter Julia came of age as a labor organizer and Occupy demonstrator. Joe would have been elated to hear Julia and the voices of a new millennial generation of radicals. He would have appreciated Occupy’s exuberant appropriation of public space and galvanizing call for redistribution of wealth, which transformed the national political dialogue. He would have welcomed Julia’s efforts to build an alliance between Occupiers and sympathetic local trade unions. He might have recognized a subterranean stream of American Jewish radicalism bursting out again in the Occupy encampments. And he certainly would have provided comradely criticism of Occupy’s anarchic ideology and organization. Occupy was not built to endure, and Joe was all about radical persistence. Most of all, I wished I could have told Joe that I resolved my career dilemma when I left private law practice to work for the California courts. I had found a job that paid well enough, and also allowed me to support an impartial, accessible California justice system. I was not creating socialism, building a movement, or making history, but I was promoting my lofty democratic ideals from the Sixties. When I took that job, I heard Joe’s voice of approval. TWO MONTHS BEFORE HE DIED, on a visit with my family, Joe took me aside in his study. He had to tell me about a recent dream. It was urgent. It was so real. And immediately he was absorbed in reciting the dream, as if at his kitchen table fifteen years earlier with my tape recorder reels spinning. Joe was traveling by foot with a tribe of Indians, Native American Indians in traditional garb, his political allies from Sonoma County. They were guiding him on a long journey, moving fast and light, stepping high. They scampered atop tall mountains, across broad plains, and over vast seas. This trek ended at Joe’s Ukrainian shtetl. Joe found himself with his Native American escorts on a hill above Stanislavchik, looking out at the home he had left over 70 years ago, just as he had seen it the morning he departed for America. Joe described the dream Stanislavchik as he had recalled it to me when we began taping his life story: the red clay tile roofs of the shtetl homes, the thatched straw roofs of the surrounding peasant village, the towering steeples of the two churches, flowering acacia trees surrounding the town, checkerboard peasant fields, and the vast lands of the pomeshchik, the landlord, all set in the valley below. We had started Joe’s autobiography with this picture of home that never left him. I thought I had long ago heard everything Joe had to say, but he stunned me again with this vision of his life’s end. Joe was an extraordinary member of an extraordinary generation, a rebellious generation with a tenacious hold on their past. Even as Joe had charted a new course and built a future for coming generations, he held tightly to his history, to his people and places and deeds in the Old World and the New World. I saw it all in that noble dream journey with those American comrades guiding him home to Stanislavchik. Now 70, I’m approaching the age Joe was when I met him forty years ago, and I am grateful for my great fortune in having known him so intimately. Joe showed me a life of conviction and integrity, bonds with people, and dedication to social justice. He understood the historical significance of the life he made, the movements he joined, and the world he built. Hearing Joe’s life story, discussing and arguing it, writing it, and celebrating with Joe, I found the history I was seeking. Yet my own path led away from the immigrant Jewish working class, Jewish trade unionism, and Jewish radicalism. I traveled with my generation far from that history to American acceptance, middle-class accomplishment, bland liberalism, and vague progressivism. It’s a sociological commonplace, this assimilation of the grandchildren of the radical Jewish immigrants, with faint political and cultural remnants enduring from that great generation. Still, living through it, I was and am surprised. Kenneth Kann is author of Joe Rapoport: The Life of a Jewish Radical (Temple University, 1981) and Comrades and Chicken Ranchers: The Story of a California Jewish Community (Cornell, 1993).